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Switching On Power

There have been many attempts to predict that this 21st Century will be the African Century.

The African Renaissance, The Africa Rising narrative and The African Union’s 2063 Vision have all been predictors of a bright future but for all that there are some major stumbling blocks to overcome on the continent’s road to that future.

The biggest impediment is still power, or rather the lack of it. According to the World Bank around 70% of Africans still have no access to electricity. That’s more than 620 million people.

This lack of power inhibits millions of Africans from carrying out the basic tasks so many others take for granted:

Small businesses can’t manufacture without electricity, farmers can’t transport their food produce far as they have no access to refrigeration, school children can’t study in the evenings because they have no proper lighting, only dirty, dangerous and expensive kerosene lamps.

At a Symposium in London on Power In Africa last week we heard how far Africa has to grow to make up this shortfall. In the USA there are 3,360 megawatts per million people, in Africa there are just 91 megawatts per million.

Kofi Annan’s Africa Progress Panel estimates that $63 billion needs to be invested each year in new power generation until 2030 to catch up. It also warns that the current annual investment is just $8 million. –Way short of the target.

Add to this Africa’s coming demographic revolution which will see the continent’s population double in size to more than two billion people and we can see how powering Africa is one of the world’s most crucial development challenges.

NEAR ACCRA, GHANA - 2009/02/19: Rural Ghanian students study with the help of a kerosene lantern in the evening. Many villages in rural Ghana lack electrical infrastructure, making it difficult for students to study in the evenings. Empower Playgrounds' mission is to enhance educational opportunities for children in deprived villages by providing renewable energy through electricity-generating playground equipment, smart LED lanterns, and hands-on science kits. (Photo by Taylor Weidman/LightRocket via Getty Images)

 (Photo by Taylor Weidman/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This population explosion may present an enormous challenge but is also an enormous opportunity. One-in-every-four babies in the world will be born in Africa which will have a larger number of people of working age than both China and India. This youth revolution ought to propel Africa to becoming the workshop of the world.

But this requires having the electrical power to match and fuel the human energy of its young entrepreneurs and workers. There are some three hundred or more Innovation Hubs dotted around the continent but without access to reliable power many will struggle to scale-up.

People often look towards Renewables as Africa’s saving grace – They see solar power from the burning African sun as the answer, supported by hydro power from Africa’s mighty rivers, and by wind power and geothermal power. Much is being developed in all these sectors but as Professor Gav Don, Head of Research and Energy at Newsbase pointed out in his keynote address to the Symposium renewables will not provide the answers.

Gav Don explained how Renewables are currently providing just 18% of Africa’s current power supply. He estimates that by 2040 this will only grow to 27%.

By 2040 he says Gas will still provide 44% of Africa’s total power supply, even higher than the 36% it currently supplies, while Fossil fuels like coal will continue to play a significant role with a 23% share.

Of the Renewables Hydropower is by far the most successful. According to Gav Don it currently provides 16% of Africa’s power and by 2040 this will grow slightly to 17%.

We already have the Inga dam project in DRC, the Bu-ga Dam which will double Uganda’s capacity, and the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia which will quadruple its total power supply.

Other Renewable sources fare less well. Wind power is currently 1% of the total power generation and is predicted to rise to 6% by 2040; Geothermal is just 0.5%, while the much-vaunted solar power is currently 0.5% and will rise to 2.5%.

Bill Gates has already dismissed solar power as a solution, while President Trump with his love of polluting fossil fuels dismisses all renewables as what he’s called “an expensive way of making the tree-huggers feel good about themselves”.

However there are “alternate facts” to Africa’s power shortfall. At the Paris Climate Change agreement that President Trump pulled the USA out of, African governments committed themselves to the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative. This imposes a 2030 deadline to give all Africans access to power and is supported by the African Union, the World Bank and the African Development Bank.

Some promising projects are already in production. Ethiopia is building a plant to convert street waste into electricity. It will remove 80% of Addis Ababa’s rubbish dumps and transform them into power for a third of the city.

If successful, the project’s Chinese and British joint venture backers aim to replicate it in every major African city. Ethiopia also aims to become Africa’s Wind power capital and is building five new wind farms to double its electricity capacity.


Kenya is currently building Africa’s largest wind farm which it hopes will provide 20% of its energy needs. Last year it opened the world’s largest geothermal plant.

There’s also much activity in the solar power sector. Elon Musk’s Solarcity and the French energy giants EDF have both invested in the Rwandan and Tanzanian start-up Off Gird electric which will deliver power to two million homes by 2020.

MKOPA in Kenya connected one million homes this year with a simple rent-to-buy solar panel system which powers three domestic lights, a radio and a USB point for charging mobile phones.

The Cambridge-based Azuri Technology is also in the rent-to-buy solar market in Africa. It’s CEO Simon Bransfield-Garth says: “An energy revolution is taking place in Africa which is a generation ahead of the west”.

Developing off-grid alternatives could create many opportunities and transform millions of lives.

And perhaps that is the key. Perhaps the answer is to find off-grid local solutions to connect Africa’s 620 million people in the rural areas who need the simple answers that a solar panel can deliver.

A prime example of a low cost simple answer can be found in Cote D’Ivoire where solar panels have been sown into children’s’ school bags.

The morning sun is captured by the panels as the children walk to school. That builds up enough power to give each child four to five hours of domestic light enabling them to do their homework and study at night.

A simple solution that will never contribute to the macro-economic energy statistics but one which has the ability to transform the lives of millions of school children.

Perhaps the future is bright after all.

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